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Study links romantic rejection with reward and addiction centers in the brain

Researchers have linked rejection by a romantic partner to brain activity associated with motivation, reward and addiction cravings, according to a study published in the July issue of the Journal of Neurophysiology.

Lucy Brown, Ph.D., clinical professor in the Saul R. Korey Department of Neurology and of neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, is the corresponding author of the study. This is the third publication in which Dr. Brown and her research group demonstrated that primitive reward and survival systems are activated in people who look at their beloved.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers recorded the brain activity of 15 college-age adults who had recently been rejected by their partners but reported that they were still intensely "in love." Upon viewing photographs of their former partners, several key areas of participants' brains were activated, including the ventral tegmental area, which controls motivation and reward and is known to be involved in feelings of romantic love; the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, which are associated with craving and addiction, specifically the dopaminergic reward system evident in cocaine addiction; and the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate, which are associated with physical pain and distress.

By tying these specific areas of the brain to romantic rejection, the research provides insight into the anguished feelings that can accompany a break-up, as well as the extreme behaviors that can occur as a result, such as stalking, homicide and suicide.

"Romantic love, under both happy and unhappy circumstances, may be a 'natural' addiction," said Dr. Brown. "Our findings suggest that the pain of romantic rejection may be a necessary part of life that nature built into our anatomy and physiology. A natural recovery, to pair up with someone else, is in our physiology, too."

Deirdre Branley | EurekAlert!
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